Draft text of the speech - may differ from the delivered version.
I would like to start by thanking Councillor David Parsons (CBE) for inviting me to speak to you here in Nottingham at the inaugural meeting of the East Midlands Councils. I am delighted that you have come together in this way.
With my strong Local Government background I was very pleased to be appointed by the Prime Minister as the Under Secretary of State at Communities and Local Government as part of the new coalition Government.
As you will know, the Government has an ambitious legislative programme for this parliamentary session. As is only fitting to meet the scale of the challenges facing the country.
Devolving power to individuals and local communities lies at the heart of the Coalition Government’s ambitions. Both the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have clearly laid out the Government’s priorities in the coalition agreement, emphasising that the days of Big Government are over and our commitment to localism.
As the Prime Minster said in Liverpool on Monday, one of things we need to do to create the Big Society is to ‘push power away from central government’ to local government and beyond to communities, to neighbourhoods, and individuals.
Our approach is built on empowering, rather than disempowering, citizens and communities.
We realise that Whitehall does not necessarily know best.
And it is for this reason that people must have a genuine voice. They must have a reason to get involved and a sense of responsibility for their neighbourhood.
Key to this process will be moving from a system in which local authorities report primarily to central government and are the subject of many inspectorates, to new arrangements where councils listen to and support local people, focussing on what they want for their communities.
Looking back across the years (and I know because I have done it!) you will have seen ministers standing before meetings like this, promising to give power to you, but never quite getting round to it. Keeping their hands on the minutiae of management. So why should this time be different?
- firstly, because David Cameron didn’t make decentralisation a theme of his election campaign but the theme - Big Society is his vision, and his determination to see it implemented now governs all that we do
- secondly, the Big Society forms the basis of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, with a common commitment to localism forming the tightest bond between the two parties
- thirdly, with our Secretary of State and also the Minister for Decentralisation, Greg Clark, localism and decentralisation have true champions across government who are determined that this time power will pass to individual citizens and to local areas
- fourthly we’re already getting on with the job. We’ve ended HIPs, cut ring fencing of grants to local authorities, ended CAA and announced the abolition of the regional quangos and Regional Spatial Strategies, Regional Development Agencies and the Government Offices. Local authorities and local communities will now take the decisions on local matters themselves such as the number of houses to be built in their area
- fifthly, as announced in the Queen’s Speech, we will shortly introduce the Decentralisation and Localism Bill. This will be a large, landmark piece of legislation. Indeed, I challenge anyone to find anything on the statute book that transfers more power from central to local government than is the case with this Bill.
The Bill will see a further shift of power from regional bodies like Regional Development Agencies to new Local Enterprise Partnerships, which, together with proposals for a general power of competence will help to let local government ensure that business, health and other public bodies can come together across boundaries if need be to develop and deliver policies which need their combined effort to be truly effective.
CLG’s structural reform plan also places localism at the heart of our thinking. Over the next 18 months in Government we will deliver decentralising reforms, handing over power to town halls, we will publish information and bring transparency to what we do so that information is readily available to those who want it. Local Government too will be publishing data on its work after January 2011.
You will have heard this already, but as a Treasury minister in the former government made clear, “there is no money left”. You will know too of the economic realities of that statement.
However, we believe that local government and local people are ideally placed to make best use of the money that is available, and we are determined to make sure that you have the power to do so.
According to a study for the European Central Bank, highly decentralised countries like the US, Australia, Japan and Switzerland are twenty per cent more efficient than we are.
We know that in the current fiscal state we will all need to make great changes to the way we work to ensure that we continue to meet the demands and expectations of our local communities.
This means doing everything we can to increase efficiency and savings - reducing costs, cutting out waste and working better together.
Do you know where all of your money goes?
Do you know what your future demands are, and are likely to cost?
Do you challenge your suppliers to ensure value for money, even if that means sitting down mid-contract and negotiating the right pricing for services?
Are you transparent in providing information to the public on what you are spending their money on?
These are the questions I ask my Department where we are scouring all of our current contracts for savings. Indeed our Secretary of State makes a regular plea of “Show me the money!”.
I am not going to stand here and tell you that this is a Eureka moment. I am only too aware that good practice already exists in many areas and that some excellent work is already taking place in this region, for example in Lincolnshire, where councils are already procuring together and sharing legal services.
As you know, Lincolnshire County Council have devised a Lincolnshire Procurement card which streamlines the purchase ordering process across seven district councils and the Health Service in Lincolnshire which has resulted in over £1million of savings and additional benefits in quicker processes and improved supplier relations.
And High Peak and Staffordshire Moorlands, who are sharing a chief executive, a management team and a number of key services - reducing costs and improving the quality of local services.
In Leicestershire local services have come together to look at how, through greater collaboration and a greater focus on the needs of the local area, access to services can be improved and drugs and alcohol abuse can be tackled across a wide range of partner organisations.
You will know this, I don’t really need to tell you about it, but these are excellent examples of good practice.
But this is not just about savings - we must not lose sight that even with radical transformation we still need to ensure that local and vulnerable people are not starved of funds on which they rely.
This is not at all easy, so it is helpful to know that the LGA’s ‘place based productivity’ programme is providing a key to identifying innovative approaches such as these to help to support more councils in moving to creating and delivering opportunities.
I commend the LGA for aiming to deliver this programme to a timetable that is congruent with the work you are all having to do now to review your budgets, to anticipate budget gaps, to manage pressures.
So where do we go from here?
CLG’s job is to arrange an orderly transition of power away from the centre.
And to provide you with enough freedom and flexibility to do your job in the most efficient and effective way rather than placing barriers, bureaucracy and restrictions in your way.
Next week, Greg Clark will be delivering his objectives on Government’s latest thinking around decentralisation and how this will change the way that Whitehall operates.
I would like to reinforce the message that decentralisation is a cross government agenda - the political landscape is shifting both nationally and locally - in local Government, the Health Service, and Education to name a few.
CLG can hold the torch but it cannot create this fundamental change alone. It will take a combined approach and the efforts of many people - in fact everybody - to ensure that we decentralise the state and build a Big Society based on our values of freedom, fairness and responsibility.
And you - in local Government - are one of the lynch pins in that. Your enthusiasm to grasp the opportunities will be central to it’s success.